2THE NEXT 5 SLIDES ARE REPRODUCED FROM OUR EARLIER EXAMINATION OF THE FIRST PART OF ARISTOTLE’S “NICOMACHEAN ETHICS” (TO REFRESH YOUR MEMORY). FOLLOWING THOSE, THE MATERIAL PICKS UP THE NEW SECTIONS.
3Don’t expect more precision than the subject matter admits of: Before embarking on an examination of what the nature of the best life for a person, Aristotle offers the above caveat.Wealth and courage are generally good, but have on occasion contributed to the ruin of some people.One should not expect precise proofs out of an ethicist or political scientist because they have to deal with things that are just generally true; similarly one should not expect approximate proofs out of a mathematician, who deals with things that are determinate and definite.
4The Function Argument (briefly) 1. Every action is aimed at some goal (end). 2. Accomplishing that goal then is the “characteristic function” of whoever aims at that goal. In other words, what makes a thing what it is is the goal that it is aimed at. For example the characteristic function of a house builder is the goal of building good houses, and the characteristic function of a flute player is playing the flute well. What makes a house builder a house builder is that they have the goal of building houses well. Nobody else has such a goal. 3. Every goal has standards of quality that come with that particular goal Therefore, human life has a characteristic function. But what is the goal of human life, and what are the standards of quality for it?
5The goal of human lifeAristotle says that everyone agrees that the goal of human life is happiness.However, this is an unfortunate translation. When the modern English speaker thinks of happiness they think of the feeling of being happy (a sort of pleasure).The word Aristotle used is εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia), which means something more like “well-being” or “fulfillment” than “happiness”.But what does happiness consist of?
6HappinessAristotle dismisses some answers that others supply to the question “what is hapiness?”The masses say that the life of pleasure is happiness, but Aristotle contends that this is vulgar and not fitting of a human being.Politicians say happiness is in honor, but Aristotle points out that that requires other people to honor you. Surely someone could be live well without others honoring them.
73 lives: The life of mere survival (the vegetative life): This cannot be the characteristic life of a person because even plants do this, so there must be more to life for us.The life of pleasure (the animal life):This cannot be the characteristic life of a person because even animals do this, so there must be more to life for us.The life of virtue and reflection (the best life for a person):Since only human beings can live the life of virtue and reflection (uses our faculty of reason) this is the characteristic function of human life.
8Virtue and PrudenceWe have seen previous moral theories sweep prudence aside in favor of what morality demands.Aristotle argues that the best life for a person (i.e. the most prudent life) just is the life of virtue. So what morality requires is in fact the best life.Recall the three lives. It may be that someone wants to live the life of a pig in the mud, but that person does not have a refined set of desires that are appropriate for human happiness.
9An Analogical argument: Aristotle writes:“For pleasure is a state of soul, and to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant; e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the lover of horses, and a spectacle to the lover of sights, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue. Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself. For, besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant.”The analogy is that to be a lover of the best life means to be pleased by it, so to live the best life, we must be able to modify our character traits to fit with the life of virtue.
10Desires and Character Traits Desires are but one part of what we call “character”.A character trait is a stable disposition to act a certain way in certain circumstances. (e.g. a generous person is disposed to give when they see need)Often, modern persons regard desires as things that just come with a person and that can’t or shouldn’t be changed. However, we often seek to raise children with positive character traits (e.g. honesty, patience) and teach them to avoid negative character traits (e.g. selfishness, bad tempers).
11Desires and Character Traits One example of contemporary struggles to modify desires are struggles with addictions or other “bad” habits.Our approach to these issues is strongly reminiscent of Aristotle’s approach to ethics in general. A person might decide to quit smoking because: a) life is longer and more pleasant without smoking, b) they wish to be a better example to children, c) smoking inhibits other virtuous behavior (sociability, financial management, etc.)These motivations generally match a desire to live the life of reflection and virtue, i.e. to live the best life.
12Acquiring/Modifying Character Traits: Aristotle writes: “…the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.”
13Habituation and Training We modify character traits by habituation and training. At some point, someone must teach us or show us what it means to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, obedient, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent (for example) and this is what is meant by training, and it’s most effective for the young.Beyond just training, we must form habits that make virtuous behavior part of our nature. To make honesty a part of your character, you must be honest until you do so without even trying or thinking about it.When you get a bad habit, it takes even more effort to first break the bad habit and then replace it with a good habit (e.g. many ex-smokers replace time spent smoking with exercise or other worthy pursuits)
14Finding VirtueIf we are following Aristotle this far, we may then ask how we determine which character traits are virtuous.Aristotle answers as follows: “First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues.”
15Three Dispositions:This introduces a general method that Aristotle follows for determining virtue: “There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean…”Every character trait is expressed by some name or other, and any competent speaker of the language knows whether such names describe good or bad character traits. Aristotle maintatins that each of these words will describe either 1) a virtue (good), 2) a vice of deficiency (a lack of a particular attribute; bad), or 3) a vice of excess (too much of a particular attribute; bad).
16The Golden MeanThis leads to the common misinterpretation that Aristotle advocates “everything in moderation”. Cowardice is not good in moderation any more than cyanide is good in moderation.Rather, cowardice is what happens when someone lacks courage. Courage is the virtue, and when someone lacks courage, they have the vice of deficiency of courage called ‘cowardice’. If someone has too much courage, they have the vice of excess, called ‘rashness’, or ‘recklessness’.
17The Virtues:There seem to be as many virtues as there are positive ways to describe character, but some of the virtues are as follows:
18Temperance: the ability to resist what one ought to resist, even if it is pleasant. Vice of Deficiency:Vice of Excess:Intemperance, licentiousness, sybaritism, over-indulgence; satisfying appetites to too great a degree or with too much freequency.Asceticism; forgoing things which are really acceptable to partake of.
19Fortitude: the ability to pursue what one ought to pursue, even if it is unpleasant. Vice of Deficiency:Vice of Excess:weakness, irresoluteness, not being able to do what needs to be doneascetic, overly stoic. A person should not seek out unpleasantness, and should be somewhat deterred by it.
20Some Other Virtues:Magnificence: being appropriately generous, but with single great gestures of generosity.Magnanimity: “greatness of spirit” is knowing that one is worthy of greatness and actually being worthy of greatness.Friendliness: being neither clingy nor coldTruthfulness: being neither a liar nor blunt or rudeWit: being neither humorless nor a clown